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Mourning with Those that Mourn… Or Not?

Seth - April 19, 2007

What does the destruction on a remote Virginia campus mean to me? Does it mean anything to me?

as ye are… willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all places…

Yet after turning on the radio this morning and hearing about the fourth story on the shooting rampage at a Virginia college, I unwittingly found myself inwardly saying “enough already! I heard you the first time. Can we move on please?” As students and faculty in Blacksburg Virginia hold candlelight vigils and join hands with strangers, I’ve seemingly already lost interest and am ready to move on with life. What’s going on here?

It’s not the first time this has happened. Years ago, the wreckage of the World Trade Center had barely settled before I was more or less over it and ready to move on with life. I remember riding in the car with my mother and my wife about one week after September 11th and remarking with irritation that they were still flying the flags at half mast. My wife looked disgusted with me, having put up with multiple gripes from me about the shallow patriotism fad sweeping the nation and inane news coverage kitsch. My mother lost no time in taking me to task for my insensitivity. She noted that I wasn’t allowing people time to grieve.
Rightly so. I wasn’t. And apparently, I still don’t.


The weird thing is, I’m actually a pretty empathetic person. I can’t even watch situational comedies because I internalize the embarrassment of the
characters on the screen so fully. It becomes literally painful for me to stay in the room. I tend to naturally reach out emotionally to those around me, even people I just met. So why do I get so ruthlessly businesslike in the face of tragedy?

I guess I just don’t have much patience for “emotional indulgence” (as I see it) when there’s work to be done and needs to be met.

Back in high school, when I was nearing the end of my swim team workouts one day, we all noticed a commotion at the other end of the pool. Apparently one of our classmates, a cute and cheerful girl on the diving team, had injured her neck during a particular dive. The coach was running over to assist the diving coach and the lifeguard was moving the girl into shallow water in order to immobilize her on an emergency “back board” to prevent further neck injury and possibly paralysis.

My teammates all gathered around staring to see what was happening. Some of the girls had their hands over their mouths in worry. I caught a glimpse of the injured girl on the backboard, now with a plastic collar around her neck. She looked scared with some tears running down her face.

The feelings of the moment, however, were completely lost on me. I was thinking about my own limited Red Cross training from a couple years ago. The main feeling I was feeling was annoyance with the mindless herd of onlookers who were crowding those giving first aid and simply getting in the way. I started busying myself telling my classmates to back-off and give them some room. I remember some of the girls giving me the same disgusted looks I got from my wife years later.

To this day, I think my own actions (however clumsily and tactlessly executed) were more constructive than those of my classmates. It seems that my first instinct in tragedy or misfortune is to ignore the tears and the shock and immediately look for solutions. Even as I was watching bodies falling from the twin towers in New York on the TV, all I could think about was how this event would change America’s foreign policy and alter the balance of global politics. Not even once did I feel the slightest bit “shocked” or “horrified.”

To this day, I’m not sure what to make of it. Am I just being practical? Or am I being heartless and uncaring? And what does it really mean to “mourn with those that mourn?”


  1. I think we need people like you, Seth, people who can keep going and do what needs done in the face of the overwhelming. On the other hand, neither reaction is better than the other. Those “mourning with those that mourn” should be able to appreciate those who keep doing what is necessary and those who can keep going shouldn’t look down on those who are overwhelmed. We should all have more consideration and understanding for each other and how we react to things.

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — April 19, 2007 @ 8:51 am

  2. To this day, I think my own actions (however clumsily and tactlessly executed) were more constructive than those of my classmates.

    Well, pat yourself on the back and move on to the solution of the next one. Heaven knows worrying about problems doesn’t solve anything.

    Comment by Peter LLC — April 19, 2007 @ 8:52 am

  3. I’m curious—have you ever lost a loved one, Seth? I know I feel things much more deeply than I used to, because I have lost so many family members. I can’t even watch the news. (Although a lot of that is just the way the newscasters handle things. Katie Couric interviewing some guy still in shock right after the shootings? Man, give them some room, people.)

    Comment by Susan M — April 19, 2007 @ 9:15 am

  4. I could have written this entire post verbatim. Glad to see I’m not the only one who feels this way.

    Comment by Connor — April 19, 2007 @ 9:19 am

  5. No Susan, I haven’t really.

    I’ve had a couple grandparents die, but that’s really not the same thing.

    A sister missionary I knew well died on my mission and that one has stuck with me more than others. But she wasn’t family, or even a close friend.

    Comment by Seth R. — April 19, 2007 @ 9:43 am

  6. I don’t mean to be rude, but I have a difficult time understanding how you can be so empathetic to fictional characters on a sitcom and not be to real people suffering real tragedy. It’s not like your pondering on foreign policy after 9/11 actually accomplished anything (on the assumption that you are not, in fact, a high level gov’t official, lol). Sure, your shedding tears for the loss of people you don’t know would have accomplished just as little, but come on — they were real people.

    I simply don’t understand.

    Comment by RCH — April 19, 2007 @ 9:56 am

  7. Seth I think Susan has asked the right question. I live in Northern Virginia about 220 miles from Blacksburg. I don’t know anybody at the campus although some kids from our ward have attended there in the past. I too have grown weary of the amount of coverage, especially the detail of the killer’s life now that the video messages he sent to NBC have come out.

    But living here in Virginia I have also been touched by others. On Tuesday afternoon I went to my gym after work and the majority of the folks there we wearing Virginia Tech t-shirts – I’m sure all who had them – and the cars in the parking lot had stickers and signs attached supporting Virginia Tech. The members of the local Korean Episcopal church all gathered that night to pray for the families of the victims and for the students that survived, I’m sure out of a simple sense of support. The aid and comfort offered by so many has helped me feel more deeply for those who lost loved ones. And I have imagined the horror that must have been experienced by the students that were killed.

    Maybe it’s because a young woman in my wife’s immediate family recently died a pre-mature death that I have been able to feel for those who have lost someone.

    Today, 30 years after the Vietnam war, I go to the Vietnam memorial and as I stand at the top of the walkway I don’t really feel anything. But as I walk down the ramp and the wall gets higher and the lists of names gets ever longer, I begin to feel the pain. And then I see a relative of one of the fallen reaching out just to touch the name – almost always with tears in their eyes or opening weeping – and I can feel it again.

    Distance – physical or relational – can sometimes shield us from sorrow.

    Comment by Lamonte — April 19, 2007 @ 11:16 am

  8. My brother and I just watched “United 93″ two nights ago and I was telling him how my first reaction to the news of 9/11 was that of speculation that this might be one of the bigger steps toward the Second Coming.

    Glenn Beck has been discussing this very thing on his show since yesterday and with both you and him. I think I was more surprised the kid did all of it with pistols more than that he did it at all. I of course feel for all those effected but I don’t know how much I can mourn with those that mourn when I’m nowhere near the incident or anyone effected by it.

    Comment by Bret — April 19, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

  9. I grow weary of the specific attention they are giving the Virginia Tech killer. By posting his rants, they are opening doors for others to follow him.

    I agree that sometimes we can feel guilt for not taking the time to feel the pain of other people. But mourning with those that mourn doesn’t have to be to weep openly, it could be (as PDoE mentions) to move on and help in other, more practical ways.

    After 9/11, I remember everyone talking about not letting the terroists stop our way of life. To keep going and to show them that we will not be affected to the point of destroying ourselves in misery. So, perhaps, while one person mourns outwardly with anger and sadness, someone else will mourn inwardly with conviction and strength. We need all kinds.

    Comment by Cheryl — April 19, 2007 @ 2:18 pm

  10. Interesting post. I think it’s pretty normal for you to feel a bit disconnected with tragedies like the VT shootings. Honestly, I feel the same way. I don’t live there, I don’t know any of the victims, and I’ve never been through anything like that.

    On the other hand, my son almost drowned a few years ago (we pulled a blue and lifeles child out of the pool and did cpr on him) and now every summer when the news starts having stories about kids drowning I feel so much sorrow for the families. I can’t hardly stand to hear about it.

    I think it’s ok though. While one part of the the country is in serious mourning, the rest of us will be sad but carry on with life as we know it until they are able to join us again. Then they will do the same for us when our time with tragedy comes.

    Comment by kristen j — April 20, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

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